Around the World in a Grocery Cart
My girlfriend can find joy in almost anything, so when she turned to me one Saturday 10 years ago and told me that she was bored I didn’t take it lightly. The only problem: I was broke. It was the middle of summer, all of our friends were out of town and we felt like we had exhausted every free or near-free activity in the city. I wanted to take her away from the noise and chaos, but I didn’t have the funds to do it.
New to the city and newly employed, I was still trying to adjust to the pace and energy of my new home. A tropical island getaway or a five-star meal at one of the city’s best restaurants was out of the question. This was going to take some creativity.
The next day I decided to take a long, sad walk through our neighborhood to think about this predicament. I got so lost in my thoughts that I ended up walking a little farther from home than I usually did. I ended up behind a church between Parkchester and Castle Hill. When I looked up, I noticed a long white building with bright red signs that read Chang Li Supermarket. The parking lot was full and it looked busy, with a continuous stream of people coming in and out. Everyone was carrying red plastic bags full to the brim with stuff; I needed to know what was in them.
I walked through the parking lot, down a small ramp and into something that was entirely unfamiliar. Labels I didn’t recognize, fish I hadn’t seen before and produce I had only seen confuse competitors on the Food Network show “Chopped.” I immediately walked back out the door, ran home and told my girlfriend to put her shoes on so we could experience it together. Once inside this newfound food mecca, we walked up and down every aisle together. At every turn we were exposed to something we had never seen before. For the first time in months, we forgot that we were in New York City and found ourselves completely lost in a sea of foods we didn’t even know existed.
Thus began a new adventure. We look up recipes and gather ingredients that will transport us to another place. The more we learn about the country’s food, the closer we feel to experiencing it. After collecting things we’ve never tried before, we run home and get cooking. Creating an authentic out-of-Bronx experience, we set the mood by turning on music or a movie from wherever the dish we’re cooking was born. Not only did Chang Li give us a way to escape that summer, but it also expanded our world and brought new cultures into our apartment.
Things are better for us now financially, but a few times a week we still find ourselves wandering around Chang Li, throwing new items in our cart to try. Usually leading to surprising new discoveries, ones that have become a mainstay in our diet. You would not believe how much jackfruit we consume per week. Its floral notes make for a great dessert, but its firm, almost meaty, texture make it a great substitute for meat in curries.
Although Chang Li carries products from all over the world, their primary focus is on Asian ingredients. The sheer amount of things going on can be overwhelming to the senses. The produce is regularly being restocked, fish being cleaned and meat being fabricated into any cut you desire. I can’t think of many other places in New York City where you can get fresh pig’s blood, mangosteens, red dragon fruit and limited-edition Pocky under the same roof. Once we were even lucky enough to stumble across the rare strawberry-milk-flavored pink Pepsi, which we thought was only available in Japan. We were able to enjoy it without those pesky international shipping fees.
Chang Li boasts one of the biggest fish markets in the Bronx, full of fresh wild-caught seafood, with a selection of lesser-known sustainable fish. Despite its oily, “fishy” reputation, bluefish, when cooked properly, is delicious. The butcher towards the back of the store can be found expertly cutting beef, pork and chicken to your exact specifications. If the oxtails you find at your local supermarket aren’t thick enough for your tastes, Chang Li has whole tails.
One of the most endearing qualities of Chang Li is how authentic it feels. The store is laid out like Asian markets most of us have only experienced through our favorite travel show host. But it’s clear from the moment you walk in that for most of the people shopping here, this isn’t a staycation or some hipster gourmet shop trying to sell you overpriced “exotic” produce. For most, it’s a trip back home, a way to stay connected to their cultures, a way for parents to connect their children to a place they might never have an opportunity to visit, and lucky for us they’ve been kind enough to let us tag along.